Entry for the What a Character! Official contest (May 2019)
|“I’d really miss gravity.”
Joel answered with a chuckle, as he plucked a pebble from his side and tossed it at the lake, where it promptly disappeared under the surface. Next to him, he heard Sandy gasp, her feet sending down a hail of cold droplets as they flung out from the water.
“I don’t believe you!” she exclaimed with mock-indignation, “You’ll miss gravity more than The Fat Cat’s anchovy carbonara?”
"Hmm." Joel set his chin on his knuckles, making a sage expression. "It's certainly a close second. Their hazelnut egg tart is a third."
Before Sandy could make a further retort, Joel abruptly sprung himself to his feet with both arms stretched skyward. “In fact, why don’t we have lunch there? It’s time to feed that dragon inside your tummy anyway, right?”
A hard smack landed on his left shoulders, painful enough for Joel to feel certain that, underneath his grey cotton shirt, his skin is bruised. (Man, for a one-and-a-half-meter short woman who only weighs seven stones, Sandy sure hits hard). Still, she was laughing as she slid her fingers down his arm and settled on his elbows, nudging him to lead the way.
They cut across the grassy meadows, tiny blades gently prodding against their uncovered skin. And along the way out of the park, Joel paused several times; he waved at some passing cyclists, caught a stray ball that almost hit Sandy’s head and pitched it back at the kid whom the throw was intended for, before stopping by the drinking fountain and practically washed his face with enough water to drench the entire front of his shirt.
As their destination came into view, Sandy let out a groan. “Oh, crud, look at that line!” she glowered at the crowd of people that were practically obscuring The Fat Cat’s front door. “Let’s eat somewhere else.”
Joel cringed, though his apprehension came from the appalling idea that he should get his last meal on earth be purchased from some second-rate establishment, rather than the prospect of having to wait what is likely to be a few hours to get their lunch. After a quick glance around the surrounding block to check out what else is available (a kebab shop, Wendy’s, and a tiny tea house that looked even more packed than The Fat Cat), he slumped his shoulders and looked into Sandy’s eyes with the most forlorn expression he could manage, imagining himself as Rover whenever he was caught digging through the trash.
“No, don’t make that face,” Sandy said warningly, though her stern tone wavered with fondness. “There’s lots of other good restaurants.”
"Please." Joel stretched out the syllable, enough to fill five seconds, and tilted his pitch up, fashioned after a puppy’s whine. The grating sound prickled at his eardrums, but Joel knew it would make Sandy’s heart bleed (Rover is her greatest weakness after all—and, no, he is not jealous of Sandy’s dog for owning so much of her affections).
"Fine." She finally grumbled half-heartedly, and began walking towards The Fat Cat, clearly not willing to get into a fight over such trivial matters. Joel jogged after her with a wide grin on his face, settling comfortably in the queue, while Sandy killed the time by browsing some interior design catalogues on her iPhone.
Joel peered through the restaurant window, wondering if there was a special discount or a new menu that's causing this unusual influx of diners. He saw no such announcements—which was really unfortunate—and the other guests didn’t know why half of the block seemed to have gathered around The Fat Cat either, beyond the fact that “they felt like it”, so he followed his fiancée's example of checking his phone.
There is almost a hundred IM notifications on his screen, coming from his old teachers and classmates, Sandy’s brothers, his gym buddies, and some guys from last year’s Japan tour that he still kept in touch with. Unsurprisingly, almost all those messages were congratulatory notes, farewells, and joking-requests to bring back a piece of the star, or the moon, when he gets back to earth in a year or so.
Swallowing a lump that suddenly appeared in his throat, Joel quickly closed all the apps and shoved the device back into his pocket without replying to any of them. His scheduled departure—due in less than 12 hours—was not something he wanted to ponder about at the moment, and or the rest of the waiting time, he kept his arms crossed in front of his chest, and occupied his thoughts with the two hundred dollars he still had left, what he could spend it on before his departure, and if he’d actually still have time to buy stuffs after this incredibly long lunch period.
Joel counted thirty minutes before he and Sandy were finally seated, fifteen minutes for Sandy to decide an order, and almost an hour for their meal to arrive. The food that would normally disappear within five minutes somehow managed to last for thirty more minutes this time, as he slowly chewed on each strand of pasta, each crumb of tart.
It's funny, in a way, that his precious final moments on Earth were being bled out by useless delays and hold-ups, but he didn't feel the usual urge to leave. Only a slight bemusement as he watched Sandy took his stead to grouse and complain about the tardy waitstaffs (Joel chose not to point out that Sandy herself had added to the delay by taking her sweet time to go through the menu).
“Honestly, I sometimes wonder which one of us is actually leaving, here,” Joel commented as they headed out of The Fat Cat’s, waving his now-empty wallet between him and Sandy for emphasis—his last money left was on the cashier’s counter, and he never bothered to collect the change.
Sandy glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. “And I’m surprised you’re not more excited to go. You’re finally going to fulfill your lifelong dream.”
“It was yours too,” he pointed out, a little too quickly, suddenly feeling like an admonished five-year-old, and the conversation fell into a coma as Sandy made a vague humming noise instead of giving a proper reply. Joel wondered if she, too, was remembering their shared childhood promise of leaving Earth together to touch the sky and swim among the stars.
“It wasn’t easy for me to give it up, you know,” Sandy finally broke the silence with a tight smile. Her distant gaze shone like mist, and for a moment, Joel almost expected—hoped—feared—that she would ask him to stay (and he might have done so, if she did ask). But who was he kidding? He knew Sandy too well, and she’d never do such a thing.
Instead, she continued, “But I guess I have other priorities now,” this probably meant her newfound interest in media, and her rising prominence as a film critic. “Still, it’s great that you’re able to hold onto your goals.”
(That's what she likes about him—Sandy had mentioned on past occasions, when they are not in public; and it’s the primary reason Joel didn’t quit, the number of times he had wanted to.)
Then a shrill tone suddenly burst from his side, and Joel barely managed to stop himself from cussing. His fingers fumbled through the fabric of his pants, barely managing to keep hold of the vibrating object whose screen was now blinking with a ‘To HQ’ message. “Well, I guess it’s good-bye for now,” Sandy’s words barely audible through the still-shrieking phone.
When Joel looked up to his fiancee after turning off the infernal alarm, he saw her bright eyes crinkle with amusement. Pulling him into a tight embrace, she blew a kiss against his right ear. “See you in a light-year,” her words were spoken with an air of finality.
“That doesn’t actually make any sense! A light-year refers to a distance, not time,” he retorted, just to buy another few seconds, before giving Sandy a final squeeze and slinking away, his laden steps dripping with reluctance.
Sandy was already gone when the white Mazda he booked arrived, and Joel wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. The melancholic tune about everything falling down* that was playing from the driver’s USB was definitely not going to improve his mood. Its lyrics seemed like a taunt, ridiculing him for his more-than-twenty-years worth of dream-chasing—the core foundation of his entire existence—that would probably unravel in the groundless space then come crashing in the face of disappointment.
It’s a stupid thought, Joel knew. He’s learnt enough throughout his studies and training that real space expeditions are nothing like his old child’s fantasy—he’s long understood that he’s not going for a leisurely dip in a lively current of stars, nor would he meet his parents’ floating spirits. The year-long mission to explore the vast realms of the unknown and fill the gaps of knowledge that is vital for human progress would still be an exciting—and worthwhile—journey, he told himself. But the haunting chorus that seemed to ask, what if it’s really all for naught? weighed on him more than it really should (like gravity, an enticing whisper gladly informed him).
“I’m sorry, can you change the song?” Joel managed to interject before he could let himself be reduced to tears by a pop song. The driver shot him a curious look, but made no attempt to pry as she dutifully skipped the track. An equally gloomy melody streamed out of the speakers, and a similarly stream of colourful descriptions about the girl’s unpleasant musical choices echoed in his mind.
Suppressing an urge to shake his head in disapproval, Joel pulled out his warmed-up Galaxy Note instead. The hundred-or-so message notifications have gone up almost three hundreds, and he figured he could at least respond to some of them. He opened one that was sent by one of his crewmates to give a status update of his current position, and said thanks to the friends who had professed their support. He scrolled through group chats and smiled at the witty puns and amusing GIFs posted there. He’d miss them all for sure—he’d miss them very much—but the journey he’s about to embark is grander than anything the infinitesimal blink call Earth could ever offer (or so he needed to believe).
The car pulled over at the front of the space centre after an hour of browsing through space-themed wallpapers—to remind himself once again of the glorious spectacle he’s soon to be a part of—by which time Joel had managed to pull himself together. He hadn’t quite managed to fully soothe the jittery nerves that twisted his stomach, but he’s at least calmed down enough to be able to stride across the walkway with apparent steadfast certainty, and greet his ground-based colleagues with a winsome smile—not unlike a lottery winner’s. The ground crew outnumber the spacefarers seven-to-one, after all; and with that kind of odds, it’s rather fitting to see the small band of cosmonauts as the lucky ones.
And, as he left behind his personal belongings in exchange for a spacesuit, as he told the other six veterans that he’s 100% ready for the flight, and as they huddled in the shuttle awaiting for countdown, Joel could only promise one thing: that if he was to break, he’ll break after he’s tried breaking out of the bonds of gravity.
* Reference to the song Dynasty by MIIA
Word count: 1884